Slugger O'Toole

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#onthehill Alex Maskey explaining the work and role of NI Assembly committees

Fri 16 December 2011, 9:00am

The work of committees up at Stormont is a crucial part of the democratic jigsaw, many of them scrutinising the plans and work of Executive departments. On Tuesday I asked Alex Maskey about the role of committees in general, and then more specifically about the Social Development committee which he chairs.

Alex Maskey explaining the role and work of @niassembly committees (mp3)

After a couple of minutes of prelude looking at the context of the Assembly and Executive and the need for power sharing, Alex got into the detail of how the committees work.

He explained that his own committee’s work tends to split into three areas: benefits and welfare; housing; and tackling disadvantage. The NI Assembly website summarises its remit:

The committee was established to advise and assist the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland MLA, on matters within his responsibility as a Minister. The committee undertakes a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department for Social Development and plays a key role in the consideration and development of legislation.

While there is a general rule of parity in benefits across the UK, Alex worked through an example from the previous Assembly mandate where the committee had successfully argued that differences in (secondary) statutory obligations (for local authority childcare provision) between England and NI meant that a deviation from the standard policy was necessary in NI. The committee lobbied for change.

As well as the potential to work collaboratively with the department and minister, committees can also work with each other. Minister for Social Development – Nelson McCausland – is the lead minister within the Executive for fuel poverty. Mirroring the interdepartmental working group focussed on this issue, the Committee for Social Development brought together the eight affected committees, “maximising the collaboration” by listening in clusters to around thirty relevant stakeholder organisations.

Alex Maskey is clear that he wants his committee to have influence without just going for headlines. There’s a maturity – and an intentional stepping back from the normal political brink – to his approach.

Our committee has a scrutiny role. And I’ve said to the minister, I’m not interested in fighting with you. I’m not interested in grabbing a headline because any chair could do that and some have done that. So I could grab a headline every week on some of this stuff and be head to head with the minister. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in getting something done. I want to sit back in four years time and say we did A, B, C and D, and we did out job properly.

What would success look like for the committee?

I would like to see better statistics [“outcomes”] in relation to fuel poverty … in relation to neighbourhood renewal … in relation to regeneration. I would like to see overall poverty levels lifted.

The committee will want to be convinced that the Programme for Government commitments are appropriate and will be realised.

Success for me would be if we are able to point that what the department is responsibility for doing has been done successfully. I know that’s a tall order as the department is not an island. But as part of this notion that there needs to joined-up-ness and greater collaboration …

What about the relationship between the minister and the committee? It’s clear that senior department officials are working positively with the Social Development committee. Alex and Nelson have ‘history’ from their days on Belfast City Council. But for Alex, that should be set to one side. The minister and the committee should treat each other with respect.

There’s significant agreement about social development policy in party manifestos. Alex’s message to the minister is:

“I want to maximise the 80% [they agree on] … we’ll fight over the 20%, but we’ll cooperate over the 80%.”

Our conversation finished by looking at the impact of fewer department on the workload on smaller committees.

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Comments (6)

  1. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Alex is right about not playing to gallery, but I would add that the critical role of the committee is key to the reporting mechanism. The problem can be that that they can only scrutinise the material the department (or the Audit Office) provides them with.

    The statutory basis upon which the committee is based means they are charged with getting word out of what is going on inside government (not just what the Minister is up to, but also their departments).

    In terms of the roles of the committee. It probably works best where the chair is in a different party to the Minister. Notable breakdowns include the stand off in Education between Minister and Committee, and the PAC (which does not have the advantage of an automatic offset) over the NI Water when the chair got drawn into public advocacy for the Minister.

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  2. Cynic2 (profile) says:

    The real issue is PAC Mick. It is top of the food chain in ensuring probity and good governance in all public spending.

    When that breaks down the whole Governance system systemically fails. That, sadly, is the situation we now have. Ministers are propped up for party reasons. There are no checks

    Parties on all sides need to relaise that many current and recenet Minister sjust arent up to the job. Next time around we need a compellely new crop of politicians

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  3. Nevin (profile) says:

    Thanks for this blog, Alan, it sheds light on an important part of our governance process. Collaboration has negative overtones – collaborator – yet collaboration across the board can produce positive outcomes and that collaboration can also include the expertise of interested members of the public.

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  4. Cynic2 (profile) says:

    On a blog like this the small number of posts on this issue speaks volumes.

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  5. [...] card of the Assembly this ‘term’, more general opinions on working as an MLA, together with one MLA’s view on making committees work in a constructive way, and an insight into the Assembly’s Research and Information [...]

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  6. [...] – I talked to the committee’s chair Alex Maskey in December 2011 about the role and power of the committees and his own approach to and relationship with the [...]

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